Mary Anderson (inventor)
Greene County, Alabama
|Died||1953 (aged 86–87)
Mary Anderson (1866–1953) was an American real estate developer, rancher, viticulturist and inventor of the windshield wiper blade. In November 1903 Anderson was granted her first patent for an automatic car window cleaning device controlled inside the car, called the windshield wiper.
Mary Anderson may not be known to many but most people have probably used her invention thousands of times in their day-to-day life.  Mary Anderson was born in Greene County, Alabama, at the start of Reconstruction in 1866. In 1889 she moved with her widowed mother and sister to the booming town of Birmingham, Alabama. She built the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue soon after settling in. By 1893, Mary Anderson had moved west to Fresno, California where until 1898 she operated a cattle ranch and vineyard.
Invention of the windshield wiper
In a visit to New York City in the winter of 1903, in a trolley car on a frosty day, she observed that the motorman drove with the front window open because of difficulty keeping the windshield clear of falling sleet. When she returned to Alabama she hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear and had a local company produce a working model. She applied for, and in 1903 was granted, a 17-year patent for a windshield wiper. Her device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window. Similar devices had been made earlier, but Anderson's was the first to be effective.
Around the time Anderson applied for her patent, cars were not very popular then. As a matter of fact, Henry Ford's A model car did not even exist and his popular T model vehicle would not be created until 1908. Anderson was mocked and teased by many because of her brilliant idea for the windshield wipers. People felt that the movement of the windshield wipers would distract drivers from watching the road. Not surprisingly, the laughter did not last long because by 1913 thousands of people were driving their cars and windshield wipers were part of standard equipment. It is impossible to imagine what we would ever do without them. 
In 1904, Anderson applied for a patent for a swinging arm with a rubber blade. The device consisted of a lever that could be operated from inside a car by the driver. The lever caused a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade to swing across the windshield and then back again to their original position, thus removing droplets of rain or flakes of snow from the windshield's surface. The patent for the device was issued in 1905. Similar devices had been made earlier than Anderson's was, but hers was the first that actually worked. Additionally, the device could be easily removed if so desired, after winter was over. 
In 1905 she tried to sell the rights through a noted Canadian firm, but they rejected her application, saying "we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale." After the patent expired in 1920 and the automobile manufacturing business grew exponentially, windshield wipers using Anderson's basic design became standard equipment. In 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt them as standard equipment.
Anderson resided in Birmingham, where she continued to manage the Fairmont Apartments until her death at the age of 87. At the time of her death she was the oldest member of South Highland Presbyterian Church. She died at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee. Her funeral was conducted by Dr. Frank A. Mathes at South Highland and she was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
In popular culture
Anderson's invention of the windshield wiper is mentioned in Season 17, Episode 19: "Girls Just Want to Have Sums," of the cartoon The Simpsons, during a debate between Marge Simpson and her husband and son, Homer and Bart, about gender equality:
- Marge: "Well, a woman also invented the windshield wiper!"
- Homer: "Which goes great with another male invention, the car!" [high-fives Bart]
- Obituary, Birmingham Post-Herald, June 29, 1953
- United States Patent 743,801, Issue Date: November 10, 1903
- Women Hold Patents on Important Inventions; USPTO recognizes inventive women during Women's History Month, United States Patent and Trademark Office press release #02-16, March 1, 2002, accessed March 3, 2009
- "Hall of Fame Inventor Profile: Mary Anderson". Invent Now Hall of Fame.
- Mary Anderson: Windshield Wipers, September 2001, Inventor of the Week Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering website, accessed March 3, 2009
- "Girls Just Want to Have Sums". The Simpsons. April 30, 2006. Fox.